On losing my bhaiya

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"We grew into the mould of sibling relationship right away.” Courtesy of Hammad Ali

A cousin that was like a brother

By Hammad Ali, Contributor

I was born into a rather large family, and rather late in my parents’ life. My father was one of twelve siblings, and I was born nearly twelve years after my sister. I’ve never counted, but feel pretty confident that I have around fifty cousins. Most of them are much older than me.

I have a first cousin, my aunt’s eldest son, who is nearly fifty years older than me. He has lived outside of Bangladesh for nearly all of my life, and the first time I remember meeting him was in 2008 when I was visiting Vancouver. I fondly remember how there was no hint that we had never seen each other before. We fell into the mould of a sibling relationship right away, as if we had grown up together.

That has probably been my greatest blessing: cousins who are as old as, if not older, than my parents, and yet treat me like a sibling. I have been incredibly fortunate to have all that love and mentoring in my life. But one name – one relationship – will always stand out.

Growing up, we used to tease my father that he loved this particular nephew of his more than he loves his own children. Today, my father and my cousin have both left us. I pray that they are somewhere together, sharing stories.

Professor Abu Abdullah Ziauddin Ahmad. My first cousin, nearly 45 years older than me. My first memories of him are as a tall man with heavy-framed glasses, dressed in a tailored suit with a cup of coffee in hand as he leafs through a newspaper. This image of him was a constant from the many times I accompanied my father in visiting him, whether to his workplace or home.

I was outside Bangladesh and never got to see him in the last few months of his life after the cancer diagnosis. I am grateful for that. In my memories, he will always be impeccably dressed, dapper and dignified. The cancer has not been able to eat away those memories.

Dr. AAZ Ahmad was bhaiya to me: a word that means brother and is used to address one’s elder brothers in my culture. Maybe that is why it was years before I realized that this man, who so affectionately asked me about school or offered me treats when I visited and was a brilliant physicist.

That, and he had worked all over the world, in places like Imperial College, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and the Atomic Energy Centre, to name a few. To me, he was just the narrator of the funniest stories.

But as I grew older, I got to know more of his serious side. He would ask me what I was doing in school and share stories of his time as a student. I still remember there was a time my parents were inexplicably worried that I read way too much, but bhaiya stood up for me; he told them to let me read anything and everything I wanted and that there would be no reason ever to regret it.

While I am not sure there are zero reasons to regret how I can pick up a book and forget everything else, bhaiya defended and encouraged my reading habit. I am not sure when, but we started a ritual.

Every year, a few days before my birthday, he would call and ask me what books I would like. There was always the implicit message: I would get all the books I wanted, but not anything else, and bhaiya never went back on his word. Every year on my birthday, he would show up with the books I had asked for.

Well, except that one year when he called to inform me that he had started reading the book I asked for, and I would only be getting it once he was done first.

Thursday, Jan 18, 2018, a text message from his son informed me that my brother was no more. We knew this was coming. He had been fighting cancer for months, and finally it took him. Just like it took my father, his favourite uncle. Part of me wants to wish they are somewhere together now, sharing jokes and laughing heartily. Maybe enjoying good food. They both did love food.

I do not know, I do not know if I will ever see him again, but I know one thing. I know that every morning when I pull up pen and paper to approach a research problem, the dream of being a scientist like my bhaiya guides my hands. I know that when I try to explain a difficult concept to a peer, my bhaiya’s impeccable teaching style guides me. I know that when I ask a family member about school, I am trying to sound like bhaiya.

As long as I do these things, my bhaiya is alive in me. May his memory be a blessing.

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